This was provided by Kevan Elsby to the BBC in 2003. A fantastic account by the Brit who landed the Bedford Boys in exactly the right place – Dog Green – at the right time, 6.32am H Hour, June 6 1944.

[The photos are by Robin Kershaw of Alex Kershaw showing where Jimmy Green looked that morning as he surveyed the German defenses…]

I was born on the 4 July 1921 in the city of Bristol, England. It had a long association with the sea for the Cabots sailed from Bristol in 1497 and discovered Newfoundland. Bristol was also involved in the triangular trade — providing workers for the plantations in Virginia in return for the tobacco that the local manufacturers W D and H O Wills turned into the Woodbine cigarette so popular with British servicemen in the two world wars.

Seeing ships from all over the world in the centre of Bristol gave me a longing to go to sea. My family spent their holidays in the 1930s at Weymouth and it was there I saw the British fleet and went on board HMS Hood on a Navy Day.

Author Alex Kershaw, who interviewed Jimmy Green in 2001 for his book The Bedford Boys, shows the cliffs which Jimmy Green scanned just before H Hour on D Day.

Author Alex Kershaw, who interviewed Jimmy Green in 2001 for his book The Bedford Boys, shows the cliffs which Jimmy Green scanned just before H Hour on D Day.

As soon as war broke out in September 1939 I volunteered for the Royal Navy, but there were no vacancies. It was not until after the Fall of France in 1940 that I was able to join the Fleet Air Arm as a trainee pilot. I was fortunate (though I did not think so at the time) in not passing the course, as most of those cadets who became pilots did not survive the war.

I was given the option of staying in the Fleet Air Arm as observer or joining the executive branch as a potential officer. I spent most of 1941 in HMS Bulldog, an old destroyer on North Atlantic convoys. In May 1941 we captured U-110 with its Enigma machine and code books intact. I was on deck behind the 3.5-inch guns when U-110 was captured. A British sailor who could speak German took my place in the boarding party. The German prisoners were told of the invasion of Russia, which we heard over the ship’s radio, but they would not believe us, saying it was British propaganda.

I spoke with one of Goebbels’ propaganda officers, who was at sea for the first time. We spoke in French. He would not believe me.
Life aboard HMS Bulldog was dreadfully uncomfortable. Above deck, waves as high as houses would crash down. I was often very cold, spending endless hours staring out to sea. Below deck, there were too few hammocks, so I had to sleep on a locker, tossed and turned by every movement of the ship, with seawater sloshing around everywhere. It was the worst year of my life!

After being commissioned as a sub lieutenant in February 1942 I opted to serve in Combined Operations and joined 24th R Boat Flotilla. I was a keen sportsman, playing rugby, cricket and football. Being part of an assault flotilla allowed me to indulge my interest in sport more frequently. We were assigned to Lord Lovat’s 4th Commando and took part in the Dieppe Raid and lost our Flotilla Officer when we ran into a German convoy.

Early in 1944 I joined 551 Landing Craft Assault (LCA) Flotilla at Plymouth as its Divisional Officer (otherwise known as Executive Officer, 1st Lieutenant or second in command, and generally known as ‘Jimmy the One’.) I joined the navy as George and came out as Jimmy.

551 Flotilla was based in HMS Ceres, an old cruiser permanently anchored in Plymouth Sound to protect the dockyard and city from German raids. The Luftwaffe flattened the centre of Plymouth in 1940 and 1941, but the dockyard was virtually untouched.

The German air raids ceased in 1941 so life on board HMS Ceres was peaceful. Our 18 LCAs were moored close to Ceres and we were able to carry out exercises and use dockyard facilities to bring our craft up to operational standards. We also managed to play an occasional game of football against local opposition.

We were really awaiting the arrival of SS Empire Javelin (our mother ship) recently built in the USA and converted to a Landing Ship Infantry (Large). It was manned by a Merchant Navy crew and had davits equipped to hoist our LCAs on board. The Javelin spent a few days in Plymouth where we worked out operational procedures for hoisting and lowering the LCAs with mixed RN and MN crews.

After a short stay in Plymouth, SS Empire Javelin sailed to Scotland and anchored in the Holy Loch north of Dunoon. Here we came under the orders of a Commodore of the US Navy. The Javelin carried a Royal Navy Lieutenant as Liaison Officer between the US Navy, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. He was the Senior Naval Officer Transport and known to all of us, unfortunately, as SNOT. He had received from the US Navy two manuals entitled ‘From Ship to Shore. Volumes 1 and 2′. He passed them to the Flotilla Officer, Lt Freddy Grant, who passed them on to me to read, learn and inwardly digest. The books detailed the procedures for taking troops on the landing craft, which circled off the troop ships until such time as they were called in to load their passengers from scrambling nets. We took part in a couple of exercises using these procedures with limited success.

The LCA had a crew of four — a coxswain, two seamen and a stoker in the engine room responding to a telegraph and voice pipe operated by the coxswain. The LCA had two petrol engines fuelled by 100 percent octane, which it gobbled up rapidly giving a comparatively short range. It was also not designed to go round for a long time in circles and I was made aware of the discontent of the crews, particularly the stokers who had bells constantly ringing in their ears as coxswains tried to maintain station. I wasn’t particularly happy circling around the rear of a transport waiting for my number to be called.

I conveyed my criticisms to the Flotilla Officer and SNOT, having doubts about the system working in the English Channel in the night and in a possible gale. My arguments were accepted and it was decided to invite the Commodore to lunch aboard the Javelin to discuss our problems. I assembled a colour detail complete with Bosun’s whistle to pipe the Commodore aboard. He duly arrived on time, acknowledged the presentation of arms by the colour party and greeted us with a ‘Hiya Boys! Where’s the bar?’ He later agreed to our method of having troops loaded on board the Javelin, loading them into LCAs at the davits and lowering them into the water. We found that troops normally preferred this method rather than using scrambling nets.


We continued our training in Scotland, exercising with troops both by day and night. The Javelin did sail south to take part in Exercise Fabius on Slapton Sands. Live ammunition was used in this exercise and my first wave had little time after the ceasefire to make for the shore. At the given time the bombardment ceased and we made full speed for the beach. As we neared the shore about ten minutes after cease fire we were straddled by a salvo of 14-inch shells from USS Texas, which missed our craft but soaked most of the occupants. Observers reported that we were all sunk, which gave rise to rumours over casualties. There was of course another action off the Isle of Wight during the earlier Exercise Tiger with the landing craft for Utah Beach, when E-Boats got amongst the convoy of troop ships making for Slapton.

Early in June the Javelin arrived at Portland and we took on board from Weymouth harbour the 1st Battalion of 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division along with other support units. They were a friendly but shy bunch of fresh-faced country lads who must have felt at home in Ivybridge — a small town in Devonshire, where they had trained for the invasion.

There were a series of briefings at the Pavilion in Weymouth and I had a separate briefing for my particular assignment. I was the leader of the first wave and it was my task to land A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment at Vierville sur Mer at 05:30 on 5 June. We were referred to in the flotilla as ‘The Suicide Wave’, something that we felt with pride represented the danger we faced rather than the prospect of casualties. We had trained day and night, including fog. Many of the men in 551 Flotilla had taken part in earlier landings in the Mediterranean. Like so many men on D-Day, we felt we simply had a job to do and that we were ready for it — ready for the war to end and ready to get on with it. When troops were aboard the Javelin, it was very cramped and the bar was closed, so we were ready to get the troops off the ship too.

I had six craft of 551 Flotilla under my command plus two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles carrying two platoons of C Company 2nd US Rangers. They were to come to the Javelin and tag on to my right column then come into line abreast on my signal so that we all landed at the same time 05:30 on 5 June.

The officer commanding A Company 116th Infantry Regiment was Captain Taylor Fellers who I believe served in the National Guard at Bedford Virginia. He was a very serious, thoughtful officer who seemed a lot older than our sailors who were in their late teens or early twenties. It was his objective to secure the pass at Vierville sur Mer, which led off the beach between the cliffs. It was my task to put him and his Company plus the Rangers on the beach at the right place and at the right time. For as far as I could see on D-Day in both directions, Captain Fellers was the first American soldier to set foot on Omaha Beach in front of the Vierville sur Mer draw. The beach was empty, apart from the beach obstacles laid by the Germans.

Taylor Fellers spoke to me of his concern that this would be the first time that he and his Company would see action and asked me to give them every support. He sought me out on the Empire Javelin. I assured him that if we saw any Germans we would certainly open fire with our Lewis guns. In the event, we were unable to do so. We landed about 100 yards below the beach obstacles soon after low tide and hundreds of yards from the edge of the beach. It was dull, grey and overcast. Like so many, we could not make out a single German. We knew they were there, but we could not see them. With the LCAs rocking up and down on the surf, we were in more danger of shooting down the American troops in front of us.

The Javelin sailed from Portland harbour on the evening of the 4 June 1944 in the teeth of a gale. A few hours later we were recalled to Portland harbour as the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours. H Hour was amended to 06:30.

I turned in at about 22:00 hours on the night of the 5 June with instructions for a call at 04:00 as we were due to launch at 04:30. I was shaken at about 03:30 by Able Seaman Kemp who combined his duties as Captain of the Heads (toilets) with looking after the officers — I don’t think there was any reason why he combined both tasks. He asked me if I would be good enough to report to the Flotilla Officer as the launching time had been changed. At first, I was annoyed at being woken early. The ship was bouncing around in the heavy seas — little different from the previous day. Freddy told me to get the first wave launched as soon as possible as I could not make my planned rate of knots in these conditions. My craft LCA910 was on the starboard side of the lower deck with LCA911 behind me followed by the LCA coxed by Leading Seaman Massingham.

Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 of his men were waiting at the davits opposite LCA910 and were soon taken on board to be launched in the pitch dark into unfriendly sea. The lowering into the water was a bit of a nightmare as the heavy block and tackle was moving around and had to be secured against ones body before the hook could be released from the ring of the LCA. The after hook had to be released first while the LCA maintained position until the forward hook (my responsibility) could be released. My coxswain was Leading Seaman Martin of Newfoundland (How I blessed those Cabots from Bristol for discovering a land which produced such an excellent seaman). Instead of my normal sternsheetsman (the sailor at the back) I had been given at the last minute Signalman Webb to work a brand new signal set — also given to me at the last minute.

Webb was delighted to be given the opportunity to see action instead of manning the signal station in the Javelin. As LCA910 was being unhooked we were hit in the stern by LCA911 and the stoker told the coxswain through his voice pipe that we were taking in water in the engine room. I had to clamber through the troops to the engine room only entered through the stoke hole on the after deck. After a discussion with the stoker and Webb we thought we could keep afloat if Webb, sitting at the open stoke hold, used a hand pump at its maximum.

After this minor diversion we found the American patrol craft, which was to escort us part of the way to Vierville. We set off in two columns of three, like Nelson at Trafalger, with LCA910 at the head of the starboard column and my second in command Sub Lieutenant Tony Drew at the head of the port column. There was no sign of the two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles, so we set off without them. In fact, they were close behind us on my right flank, but I could not see them in the dark. I had been aboard the US patrol craft after Exercise Fabius and had seen its radar, which was far more accurate than my magnetic compass.

It was heavy going in the rough seas and we were shipping water over the bows. However we were on course and on time. About five miles from the coast we parted company from the US patrol craft with mutual signals of respect.

A few minutes later we came upon a group of Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) wallowing in the heavy seas and making about half our speed. I muttered something like ‘What the hell are they doing here!’ Taylor Fellers, who had been sitting on a bench with his men, joined me and told me the LCTs were carrying tanks scheduled to land before us and lead A Company up the beach. This was a complete surprise to me but it didn’t make much difference, as they had no hope of getting there on time. We left them in our wake and never saw them again.

It was beginning to get light and the bombardment by the battleships and cruisers had ceased. I could vaguely make out the French coast through the gloom and noticed puffs of smoke moving along the top of the cliffs. Dismissing the thought that it was the USS Texas emptying its gun barrels, I believed that it was a steam train puffing its way along the coast to Cherbourg.

It was approaching the time to form line abreast and make our dash for the shore. I turned round to see how the other craft were coping. I was just in time to see the bow of LCA911 dipping into the sea and disappearing below the waves. I believe 911 had been damaged during the collision with 910, whilst lowering the boats from the Javelin.

All the crew and soldiers had life jackets and I could only hope they would keep everyone afloat until I returned. It goes against the grain for a sailor to leave his comrades in the sea, but LCA910 had no room and our orders were explicit that we were to leave survivors in the sea to be picked up later. It was essential to land on time.

A few minutes later as we neared the shore I picked out some nasty looking pill boxes and hoped they were not manned. A group of LCT(R)s — tank landing craft carrying rockets on their decks — came up behind me and launched all their rockets woefully short. Not one came anywhere near the shoreline. The heavy swell must have played havoc with their range finding. I remember shaking my fist in anger.

I then gave the signal to form line abreast and told signalman Webb to stop pumping and take cover. Martin pulled down the cover over his head and was guided by me through slits in his armour-plated cockpit. I was watching a particularly menacing looking pillbox at the mouth of the Vierville sur Mer draw in my binoculars and thinking that if it was manned we were going to be in trouble.

There was a loud bang in my right ear and I turned to see a LCG (Landing Craft Gun) blazing away with its 4.7s and scoring direct hits on the pillbox. I wished it could have stayed longer but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I had no idea we were getting support from other landing craft. One of the LCAs in the left flank was hit by an anti-tank bullet, passing through the armour plating on both sides of the boat and catching one of the American troops, who was vary badly injured.

Now we were alone, at the right beach at the right time. Taylor Fellers wanted to be landed to the right of the pass and the other 3 boats in the port column just to the left of the pass. We went flat out and crunched to a halt some 20 or 30 yards from the shore line. The beach was so flat that we couldn’t go any further so the troops had to go in single file up to their waists in water and wade to the shore through tidal runnels. Taylor Fellers was gone as soon as the ramp was lowered before I could wish him luck, followed by the middle file, then the port file and the starboard file as practised and in good order. They all made the beach safely and formed a firing line at a slight rise. At this time there was a lull in the German firing. They had been plopping mortar shells around us and firing an anti-tank gun but suddenly they ceased fire. A German veteran told me recently that they had been ordered to preserve ammunition. They had been ordered to wait until they had a clear target within range.

The beach was very wide. About 100 yards from the shore line were some obstacles. We knew the beach was mined and this was why we landed at low tide. About another 200 yards further on from the obstacles were the dark cliffs where the Germans were in their prepared positions. In my briefing I was told that the beach would be bombed the night before and there would be craters where the advancing troops could shelter. The beach was flat as a pancake with not a crater in sight.

The landing took quite a time and I was itching to return to the survivors of LCA911 hopefully still afloat about a mile offshore. I looked to my left and saw Tony Drew up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA and obviously in some sort of trouble. He told me much later that he had reversed off the beach into a tank, most probably from the US Navy LCT(A)2227, which landed immediately to our left.

I was intending to see if I could help Tony Drew, when my coxswain told me that there were some of our lads on the beach. I thought it unlikely but he was right. The two craft with the Rangers on board had landed just behind us and to our right. The crew of one of these craft were waving frantically at us and wanted us to take them off. I thought twice about it, with Tony Drew and the survivors from LCA911 in mind, but I couldn’t leave them on the beach so 910 went into the beach again, grounded and picked up the crew. One of them was wounded and had to be supported by his shipmates. They told me that they had been hit by 4 mortars on landing which destroyed their LCA and killed a number of the Rangers. There was no one else nearby so I assumed the Rangers had looked after their own casualties.

Tony Drew was still up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA. He told me that his rudder had jammed, but he could fix it. This LCA made its way ten miles back to the Javelin without steering, using the twin engines to steer the boat.

It was about this time that I remembered to send a signal reporting our landing. I looked round for Signalman Webb who was on the after deck sweeping off the remains of our smoke float which had probably been destroyed by a near miss from a mortar or anti-tank shell. He obviously enjoyed his role as a seaman — much more exciting than relaying signals in the Empire Javelin. We sent a signal to the effect of, ‘Landed against light opposition.’

We formed up again and set off to find the survivors of LCA911. They were still bobbing around in the heavy swell. I was told that the crew of 911 had been picked up by a patrol craft, which then made off at speed with Petty Officer Stewart hanging on to a rope. (His arm was later amputated and he was invalided out of the Navy). We managed to get everyone on board with some difficulty as an exhausted sodden soldier carrying a vast amount of kit is very heavy to lift. I had to use my sailor knife to cut the straps releasing the kit before being able to lift survivors aboard, leaning over the side of the boat and being held by my legs. In some cases I had to lower the ramp and lift exhausted soldiers in over the bow. No one was left in the water. Years later, I was informed by survivors from A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, which the signalman had downed, weighed under by his signal equipment.

The survivors asked about their comrades and I told them that they had landed as planned. Many wanted to be taken to the beach, but they were in no fit state to take any further action. I handed round my ships Woodbines (made by W D and H O Wills of Bristol from Virginian tobacco) and apologised for not having any American cigarettes.

We returned to the Empire Javelin and took several shots at hooking on. The Javelin had to up anchor and make a lee, the conditions were still so rough. We had never set sail in such seas. Martin was hit by a swinging block which threw him from one end of the boat to the other, splitting his forehead open to the bone but we eventually made it and handed our survivors over to the waiting medical staff.

I have absolutely no idea what I did when I returned to the Javelin. There is a gap in my memory and my next recollection is of entering Plymouth harbour the following day to an amazing reception. Plymouth sound was full of ships waiting to depart to Normandy and they recognised that we had come from there as our six empty davits revealed our losses. The surviving landing craft were badly shot up. As we came to anchor we were greeted by all the ships sounding their sirens as a signal of their respect. It was a very moving and rare experience. We were the first vessel to enter Plymouth harbour from the invasion. 551 Flotilla formed up on deck. We had been told to expect one-third losses and in respect of the landing craft, the planners were right. We returned with 12 out of 18 LCAs, with many of the remainder badly shot up.

The second and third waves of LCAs from our flotilla had landed between 0700 and 0800, by which time the tide and reached the beach obstacles and the Germans had them within machine gun range and subject to more accurate mortar fire.

One sailor from our flotilla, Bill Wheeldon, was killed on Omaha Beach. One of our crews had called to him from the water’s edge, but Bill continued to cross the beach with the American troops and was shot down. Many of our flotilla were injured and invalided out after D-Day.
All of the American troops on LCA911, including the CO Captain Taylor Fellers, were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other troops transported on the Javelin and landed by 551 Flotilla were killed. It was a long time before we discovered the extent of the casualties.

The last time I saw the troops of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, they had been in conference at the water’s edge and were forming an assault line parallel to the water line, like a scene from The Somme. I expected them to run off in various directions, like the commandos we had trained with. Having completed our task, our attention turned to getting back to the Javelin and away from the beach. Captain Fellers had discharged himself from hospital to lead his men on D-Day.

It is not widely known, but there was a substantial Royal Navy presence on Omaha and Utah Beaches on D-Day. On Omaha Beach, four battalions of American troops were landed from seven British transport ships and LCA Flotillas. Both of the 2nd and 5th the US Ranger Infantry Battalions were with the Royal Navy, as were the 1st Battalions of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division and the 1st Battalion of 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.

Some of our sister flotillas, including 550 Flotilla on the SS Empire Anvil at the eastern, Colleville end of Omaha Beach, suffered higher casualties. A number of British sailors were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other landing craft, amongst them LCTs for example, were British.
We had to replace and repair our craft at Plymouth and take on fresh crews as quickly as possible so as to make many more trips to Normandy, ferrying men and equipment until suitable harbours could be opened. In November 1944 our services were no longer needed and we left the Javelin at Fowey where we moored our craft in the river there. Shortly after leaving SS Empire Javelin we heard that she had been sunk by a U Boat in the Channel off Cherbourg, where she still rests at the bottom of the sea.

551 Flotilla was earmarked to take part in the recapture of The Channel Islands — the only part of Britain to be captured by the Germans. The reception given to us by the Channel Islanders was rather different from the one we received in Normandy. We were the first into harbour, with the Germans still at their stations. We enjoyed several days of celebration then rounded up the German Garrisons and took them back to Southampton to POW camps. I remember being driven around Jersey in a car that had been hidden in a haystack for the duration of the War.

The flotilla then sort of disintegrated. We were destined for the war against Japan but VJ Day arrived as we were embarking for the Far East. The officers’ postings were cancelled but the crews were sent as far as India where they remained for several months before return to Britain for demobilisation.

I buried my wartime memories for over 50 years and it was not until I became a widower in 1995 that my thoughts returned to my old shipmates. I joined the Landing Craft Association and through them discovered that my flotilla had been holding reunions for a number of years. They had tried to contact me but I had joined the Army after taking a history degree at Bristol University and spent several years in territories throughout the world linked to Britain. I left the Army Education Corps as Lt-Colonel in 1976, so I had flown, sailed and also served in the army during my military service.

I eventually made a reunion in 1997 and once the initial reticence was overcome became shipmates again. There was however an underlying rancour directed at American writers, which had escaped me as I had no desire to resurrect old forgotten nightmares. However, when I read these accounts written by S L A Marshall and Stephen Ambrose, I could see why our veterans were angry. These two writers had no idea what occurred at 06:30 on D-Day so invented some cock and bull yarns to cover their ignorance. According to these writers reluctant British coxswains had to be persuaded at the point of a Colt .45 to land their soldiers on the beach, including the boats under my command. If these two writers had bothered to study photographs of LCAs they might have noticed a box shaped turret ‘forard’ on the starboard side (up front right). This armour-plated turret enclosed the coxswain where he controlled the LCA — well clear of any Colt-toting mutineer intent on assuming command.

I can personally shoot down another flight of fancy dreamt up by Marshall and repeated by Ambrose, who describe how the lead craft (mine) with Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 men aboard was struck by a German weapon (A V3 perhaps) which ‘vaporised’ the LCA and all of its occupants before it could reach the shore. As Taylor Fellers and his men all landed safely and were later killed on the beach one wonders how Ambrose could write such fiction. The body of Taylor Fellers was found on the beach and brought back to the USA and buried in Bedford Cemetery. I laid a wreath on his grave on behalf of 551 Flotilla when I was privileged to attend the dedication of the Memorial gate at the magnificent D-Day memorial.
A bare minimum of research was all that was required to find out how Taylor Fellers died and where he was buried.

Matters were hardly improved by the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’. I have no objection to the film as such because it wasn’t a documentary and Spielberg can use his remarkable talents to portray a story. But when asked by a BBC interviewer why he did not show any British involvement, he replied ‘This is a film about Omaha Beach. There were no British on Omaha. There is no role for the British.’ Spielberg also claimed that ‘Historical accuracy is the bedrock of films such as Saving Private Ryan.’ He follows the tradition of Marshall who wrote in an article ‘Normandy was a great American victory.’ Perhaps it was all a bad dream and I was not there.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ depicted C Company of 2nd Ranger Infantry Battalion landing on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach. Their two British LCA landing craft and the six LCAs carrying A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division of the Army of the United States of America came under my command at that exact point and time. I was British then, as were all of the hundreds of other British sailors landing American troops on the morning of D-Day. Denying the presence of the Royal Navy on Omaha Beach or dishonoring them was a gross injustice.
On a more serious note, Omaha deserves a place in American history.

Those who died bravely at Omaha deserve to have their death recorded accurately. We who survived owe it to them. We owe it to those who served in World War Two to remember their stories, like mine, and we owe it to them to remember them accurately, as they actually happened.
As Lieutenant Ray Nance, a veteran of and second in command of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment put it ‘We were with the British. They were the best.’

Jimmy Green

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I interviewed Betty Wilkes several years ago, after I had published The Bedford Boys. I recently found the transcript having learned that she had passed away. She lost her husband, Master Sergeant John Wilkes, on D Day, 6 June 1944. He was killed on Omaha Beach with 18 other men from the community of Bedford, Virginia.

How did we get word that the boys were finally shipping out to England? One of the boys must have gotten a telephone call through to Bedford, and we got word of it. My friend Viola, whose husband Earl Parker was in Company A with my husband, called me and said: ‘Well, do you want to go to New York?’ I said: ‘Well I guess so.’ Her dad brought us to the station in Bedford. We caught a train out, in the evening, the next week. It was crazy. But I had said I would see John any way I could. Of course, we couldn’t get a call through from our hotel in New York. We tried and tried. The next day we decided to try to go back to Bedford.

I lived in Bedford with my sister Mildred. We had an apartment together. She was very important to me. We worked together. She was five years older than me. I was 21 when John was killed. When I found out about his death, I didn’t want to go back to work. After I got the telegram, about a week later, my sister said: ‘I’m not going back to work until you go.’ I guess that pushed me. I didn’t want her to lose her job on account of me. I didn’t want to lose mine either. Having to do something helped.

Viola Parker, who also lost her husband Earl on D Day, was close to me. We talked probably about every night. Viola would always talk about Earl, saying: “when he comes back…” She would not accept that he had been lost. I just listened and didn’t want to tell her he wasn’t coming back. She went to see [Lieutenant] Nance [who had been on Omaha Beach] and he told her Earl had been killed and then she finally accepted his death. She was trying to keep hope alive and I didn’t want to stop her having that….

I was with Viola the night that Danny [her daughter with Earl] was born in 1943. Her mother was over at the hospital and called me. Viola had taken a pencil and paper with her when she went to the hospital. They brought her back to her room in the hospital after she gave birth. I was there. She was soon looking for a little draw in the bedside table. She brought out this paper and pencil and she tried to sit up and write to Earl, just a few hours after she had given birth. We tried to get her to go back to sleep.

I went to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. I met a medic, Cecil Breeden, who had landed in the first wave with my husband, John. We met at Dulles airport first, boarding a flight. He helped me with my luggage. He wanted to know where I was from. His eyes popped out when I said I was from Bedford. In Normandy, he took me down onto the beach and showed me where he had found John’s body. He said John hadn’t suffered – he was shot through the forehead.

I had John’s body brought back to Bedford in 1947. I felt better because I knew he wanted to come home. There was some closure there. I had brought him home. His mother and father are buried right behind him now. His sister is too. When we saw the coffin, his father said to me: ‘I feel sure that’s him, don’t you?’ I replied: ‘Oh yeah.’ We could not be certain because we were not allowed to open the coffin.

I still have John’s ring [over sixty years later]…the wedding ring. It’s in a necklace that I wear. The photo shows me near a waterfall. It was a Sunday, on our honeymoon, in 1941. I was eighteen.

23-year-old Master Sergeant John Wilkes, Company A, 116th Inf. Reg., 29th Div., with his 18-year-old wife Betty Wilkes, on their honeymoon, Virginia, 1941.

23-year-old Master Sergeant John Wilkes, Company A, 116th Inf. Reg., 29th Div., with his 18-year-old wife Betty Wilkes, on their honeymoon, Virginia, 1941.

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Dr. Sumner Jackson, resident at Number 11 Avenue of Spies

Dr. Sumner Jackson, left, shown in WWI, resident at Number 11 Avenue of Spies


A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and
One American Family’s Heroic Resistance
in Nazi-Occupied Paris
Crown; August 4, 2015

Q. How did you first come to hear about the remarkable Jackson family?

A. I had been in Paris, my favorite city, and was determined to find a way to write about it so I could return as often as possible—at least for a couple of years! I considered writing about the liberation of the city in August 1944, but then I came across an interview with Phillip Jackson online. I was astonished by his story—the son of an American doctor who had joined the resistance. When, after a year of research, I discovered that he lived so close to the most murderous Nazis in France—his neighbors on Avenue Foch—I knew that I had a fabulous narrative. In telling the story of the Jacksons and their neighbors, I could tell the story of Paris under the Nazis, and indeed of any place where evil resides beside heroism. In the darkest of places—Avenue Foch in WWII—there was still a source of light, of hope and inspiration.

Q. You spent a great deal of time in Paris, searching through archives and records, and even interviewing Phillip Jackson and individuals who lived through the Nazi occupation there. Can you tell us a bit about the experience?

A. It was an experience I never wanted to end. I spent weeks wandering around Phillip’s neighborhood, visiting his childhood haunts, his old school, the places where he grew up. I explored the darkest corners of Nazi Paris: the restaurants the SS ate in, the addresses they used as torture chambers. I walked up and down Avenue Foch dozens of times, looking up at the top floor windows at number 84, where so many brave British spies had been tortured. I stood on the terrace at the American Hospital in Neuilly, where Dr. Sumner Jackson, Phillip’s father, had stood in 1940 as the Nazis approached Paris. I sat in the living room of Francis Deloche de Noyelle, the man who recruited the Jacksons to the resistance. I was also able to interview American airman Joe Manos, who, more than seventy years later, was still immensely grateful to the Jacksons for hiding him at their home and helping him to escape back to England. I was very much aware that I was in a race against time and that these key characters in my story might not live too much longer. And last but not least, I drank and ate as much as I could at Phillip Jackson’s favorite restaurants, a stone’s throw from Napoleon’s tomb. I’m still very sad it had to come to and end and I had to actually write the book!

Q. You’re an acclaimed World War II author and historian who has covered so many facets of the war; what drew you to Paris for your new book?

A. The romance, the utter beauty and sophistication of the place … the wonderful memories I had of the city and country as a child, at my happiest. It makes the heart sing. It is such an extraordinary place to be in, let alone write about. I have at times been able to truly live in the moment through my love of the French language and culture. Ever since reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I’ve wanted to base a book in the most sensual city on the planet. I count myself very lucky to have been able to spend three to four years of my adult life reveling in my great love of France. I think my passion for the period and the city comes through in the book.

Q. While you’re so well versed in the history and events of World War II, was there anything you discovered in the course of your research for AVENUE OF SPIES that you found particularly surprising or poignant?

A. Yes, many things surprised me. That people went insane because of the stress involved in being in the resistance. That cultured and educated men could so gleefully become mass murderers. That the British were so amateurish when it came to running spy networks in Paris. I was astonished at the level of sacrifice by those French who dared to resist, amazed that so many Jews could be rounded up in plain sight, in the heart of the most civilized city in the world, by French police and then sent to their deaths. And I was so profoundly moved and inspired by the heroism of the women of the French resistance—such wonderful, powerful, beautiful reminders that all that’s best about humanity is often revealed in the darkest times when the few resist even as the vast majority look the other way in the face of atrocity and injustice.

Q. AVENUE OF SPIES features an incredible cast of characters—diplomats, socialites, spies, SS agents. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the individuals you encountered?

A. On one of my visits to Phillip Jackson, now 87, the only child of Sumner and Toquette Jackson, who lived at number 11 Avenue Foch, I was able to have lunch at the hospital of Les Invalides, where he now lives. I suddenly realized I was in the same room as ten men and women who had fought so bravely, and paid such a high price, to defeat Hitler—the crème de la crème of the French resistance. I also spent a wonderful evening with Fritz Molden, high in the Austrian Tyrol. He died a week after I met him, and was feted in Austria as the country’s greatest resistance hero. He had been a close friend of a spy who had tried to save Toquette Jackson and many others from deportation, and he was a wonderful, brave, cultured man—a giant of the last century. There were many others, so many powerful experiences.

Q. The year 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the occupation of Paris. What is life like today on the famed Avenue Foch? What has become of the Jackson home at number 11? And who now occupies the notorious number 72, where the Gestapo set up their base of operations?

A. The avenue is perhaps even more exclusive than ever. No Nazis that I know of, but there are a number of billionaires and several well-guarded embassies. I was asked to stop taking photos by a security guard outside one mansion. The Jacksons’ home at number 11, on the outside, has not changed at all. The black railings are still there. Number 72, the last time I looked, was empty and shuttered. Whoever chooses to live there in the future should perhaps not care too much about history or believe in ghosts!

Q. Is there a message you hope readers will take away with them after reading AVENUE OF SPIES and learning about the heroic efforts of the Jacksons?

A. Always resist oppression, no matter the price. Always fight back, no matter the cost. There are times when we have to take a side. The world will always be grateful to those who combat terror and extreme prejudice. I certainly am.

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By Alex Kershaw



23 JUNE 1940

It was just after dawn when Hitler’s Storch rumbled along the runway at Le Bourget airfield. A giant cloud of oil fumes that had hovered over Paris since June 1, had miraculously disappeared, just in time for the Führer’s visit. Five large Mercedes sedans were soon cruising along empty boulevards with their leather roofs rolled back, their occupants dressed in smart uniforms, heads bobbing in unison whenever they went over cobblestones.

At 6:35 a.m., Hitler’s convoy circled the Arc de Triomphe twice and then set off down Avenue Foch, the wealthiest street in all of vanquished Europe. The fifty-one-year-old Führer was soon passing the street lamps and elegant black iron railings designed by Gabriel Davioud that fronted the Jacksons’ ground floor home at number 11 and other buildings along the avenue.

To Hitler’s right, on the north side of the avenue, which was totally deserted, stood a white memorial to Jean-Charles Alphand, the chief engineer responsible for the avenue’s construction during the reign of Napoleon III. Alphand purposely made the promenade extra-wide so that wealthy Parisians in their open-top coaches could pass directly from the center of the city to the Bois de Boulogne. Named Avenue Foch in 1929, many of the elder residents still called it by its popular name during La Belle Époque: Avenue Bois.

Hitler was not impressed. He looked bored by the neat gardens with exotic flowers, the riding paths, the crisscrossing alleys, and the honey-colored mansions. Perhaps it was simply the name that displeased him. For the first time, Hitler seemed to lose interest in his surroundings. The motorcade made a sharp right midway along the avenue and headed south, toward the Seine.

By 9:00 a.m. the tour was over. Hitler would never return. “It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris,” he told Albert Speer later that day. “I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.”

That evening Speer met with Hitler in a room in a village in northern France. Hitler was seated alone at a small table.

“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” he mused. “But Berlin must be made far more beautiful. In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”

Hitler was lying. When the time came, he would destroy anything that suited his sadism. But Paris would be looted first—carefully—and the best of its portable wonders brought to him. In Mein Kampf, his autobiographical manifesto published in 1925, Hitler had clearly stated his true views about France. It was a great rival, its capital full of Bolshevik Jews, its people the “mortal enemy” of Germany. In his masterpiece of fascist and racist cant, one theme had dominated: his hatred for the Jews. Once Helmut Knochen and his colleagues—Hitler’s most loyal servants—had purged the city of these and other degenerates, Paris would enjoy a true golden age—a National Socialist “Belle Époque.”

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Having accepted the German surrender, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a message to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington:

THE FOLLOWING DAY, 8 May 1945, the world learned of the German final surrender. There were intense and prolonged celebrations in many capitals to mark the end the most destructive war in human history.

While civilians embraced, kissed total strangers and took to streets around the globe in euphoria, many infantrymen in Europe, brutalized and broken, sat alone with their grief or paced their rest areas in mournful silence. “There is V-E day without but no peace within,” wrote the war’s most decorated US infantrymen, Audie Murphy, of the 3rd Division.

Europe lay in ruins. The human cost of the conflict was beyond comprehension. In one Berlin suburb, women now outnumbered men by over ten to one. Over five million German dead littered the battlefields of a devastated Europe, especially in the East. Ninety percent of all German combat deaths had in fact occurred fighting the Soviets who had suffered an astounding 65 percent of all Allied fatalities.

Barbarism had been defeated. Civilization had been preserved. The men of evil, Winston Churchill told the British nation, “are now prostrate before us.”

Later that afternoon of 8 May, after having lunched with the King at Buckingham Palace, Churchill was driven to Whitehall. When he stepped onto a balcony at the Ministry of Health he could barely hear himself speak, so loud were the cheers of the crowds.

“This is your victory,” he shouted. “It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

Finally, I would like to address the WWII veterans with us here, today, seventy years after the guns fell silent in Europe. I was born in England twenty years after the war ended. I grew up in a united and mostly prosperous Europe – one that you set free.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for allowing mine and other generations to enjoy the longest period of peace in Europe’s history, on a continent scarred since the beginning of time by war.

Now, seventy years later, we can agree with Churchill absolutely. He was right. Indeed, in all our long history, we have never seen a greater day than VE Day – thanks to you. It is still your victory – the greatest the world has ever known.

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Captain Anse Speairs, left, of 157th Infantry Regiment, set up his unit's first command post in Munich in Hitler's famous beer cellar.

Captain Anse Speairs, left, of 157th Infantry Regiment, set up his unit’s first command post in Munich in Hitler’s famous beer cellar.


By The United States Holocaust Museum

“On November 8–9, 1923, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party led a coalition group in an attempted coup d’état which came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch. They began at the Bürgerbräu Keller in the Bavarian city of Munich, aiming to seize control of the state government, march on Berlin, and overthrow the German federal government. In its place, they sought to establish a new government to oversee the creation of a unified Greater German Reich where citizenship would be based on race. Although the putsch failed—and Bavarian authorities were able to prosecute nine participants, including Hitler—the leaders ultimately redefined it as a heroic effort to save the nation and integrated it into the mythos of Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power.


Throughout Germany, the first four years of the Weimar Republic were marred by economic woes, trauma at the loss of World War I, and humiliation at what many considered to be the excessively punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty. In this climate of national instability, both left and right wing political movements, whose paramilitary formations swelled with unemployed veterans and rebellious youths, had attempted and failed to overthrow the fledgling democracy. By the time Hitler and the Nazis prepared their coup attempt in 1923, the movement counted over 50,000 members, the majority of whom had joined with the express hope that the party would take action against the democratic republic. Inspired by Mussolini’s successful “march on Rome” that brought the Fascists to power in Italy in October 1922, Hitler planned to make his move, including a parallel “March on Berlin” to seize control of the national government.

Members of the Bavarian state government were agitating for change at the same time. Protesting Berlin’s decision to halt passive resistance against Franco-Belgian occupation troops in the Rhineland and the Ruhr, the Bavarian government had declared a state of emergency, putting Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr in charge as a General State Commissar together with his associates Armed Forces General Otto von Lossow and State Police Chief Hans Ritter von Seisser. This “triumvirate” publicly advocated a nationalist march on Berlin but secretly calculated that others in the military and civil service in Berlin would do the dirty work, sweeping away the hated Republic and establishing an authoritarian regime. The Bavarians could then enjoy the fruits of the putsch without taking its risks and simultaneously maintain their autonomy in Bavaria. However, as it became clear to the triumvirate that they had miscalculated, they contemplated taking action against Berlin on their own. They met on the evening of November 8, 1923, in the Bürgerbräu Keller on the east side of Munich to discuss strategy.

Meanwhile, the radical and völkisch nationalist coalition, including the Nazis, had united in a formation that they called the Kampfbund (Combat League). The völkisch leaders grew increasingly impatient and pushed for a violent overthrow of the government in Berlin. Hitler, who had dubbed himself the “drummer” for the movements associated with the Kampfbund, feared Bavarian Minister-President Kahr more than any other leader as a potential rival. Having heard of the November 8 meeting, to which he was not invited, Hitler and his fellow conspirators planned to crash it and announce the Bavarian and federal government as deposed, forcing the triumvirate to legitimize his movement. Von Lossow and von Seisser would be made to order Bavarian troops out on to the street in support of the government of “national renewal,” and, in conjunction with the paramilitary units in the Kampfbund coalition, to seize crucial administrative and military buildings. Once the coalition had secured Bavaria, its leaders would march on Berlin under Hitler’s inspiration and leadership.


At about 8:30 in the evening on November 8, Hitler’s personal bodyguard detachment, the Stoßtrupp Adolf Hitler, arrived at the Bürgerbräu Keller to join the Storm Trooper units which were preparing to surround the beer hall. Having slipped inside the facility, Hitler took the arrival of the Stoßtrupp as the signal to begin the putsch. He fired his pistol into the ceiling, interrupting Kahr’s rally, and declared that the “national revolution” had begun. Surrounded by armed guards, Hitler pushed his way to the front and briefly addressed the crowd. He then ordered the Bavarian triumvirate—von Lossow, von Seisser, and von Kahr—into an adjoining room, where he bullied them at gunpoint into backing his putsch. Believing he had secured their support, Hitler and the three Bavarian leaders returned to the main hall and addressed the crowd. They declared their solidarity in Hitler’s movement and announced the new government’s key appointments.

Once they launched the putsch, however, the conspirators made a series of crucial mistakes. First, its overall success depended upon the seizure of state offices and communications centers and the use of the triumvirate’s authority to bring in the military and police. While the rebels temporarily took over some offices, including the municipal headquarters of the Reichswehr and Munich police headquarters, they failed to secure other key centers. Worse still, Hitler left the triumvirate in the custody of von Ludendorff, who yielded to their entreaties to leave the Bürgerbräu Keller, supposedly to take up their designated roles in the putsch. Once free, however, they promptly denounced the overthrow and ordered police and military units to suppress it. As the conspirators had failed to secure communications in the city, the triumvirate was able to call upon suburban police forces and troops from nearby bases.

The conspirators were too disorganized to take advantage even of the short window of confusion that might have favored their success. After he heard of the triumvirate’s betrayal, Hitler equivocated for several hours before deciding to go ahead with the march on Berlin anyway. The indecision gave the Bavarian authorities time to organize and defend Munich. In a last ditch effort to rally citizens and soldiers, Hitler led around 2,000 Nazis and other Kampfbund members in a march to the Feldherrnhalle on the Ludwigsstrasse. Munich law enforcement clashed with the marchers as they reached the Odeonsplatz. The shootout left 14 Nazis and four police officers dead and put a final end to the coup in the city. Two other Nazis would die in other localities. Hitler had relied on the paramilitary Kampfbund to carry the day, but the lack of support from the police and locally stationed military units doomed the enterprise to failure.


A five-judge panel chaired by Georg Neithardt presided over the trial of Hitler and the other putsch leaders in March 1924. Like the majority of judges during the Weimar period, Neithardt tended, in cases of high treason, to show leniency towards right-wing defendants who claimed to have acted out of sincere, patriotic motives. Wearing his Iron Cross, awarded for bravery during World War I, Hitler took advantage of the judge’s indulgence to pontificate against the Weimar Republic. He claimed the federal government in Berlin had betrayed Germany by signing the Versailles Treaty, and justified his actions by suggesting that there was a clear and imminent communist threat to Germany. Although the judges convicted Hitler on the charge of high treason, they gave him the lightest allowable sentence of five years in a minimum security prison at Landsberg am Lech. He served only eight months. While Hitler did have a base of support, left and right-wing newspapers criticized the leniency of his sentence, and a prominent legal professor published a paper outlining many of the trial’s most egregious errors. Bavarian government officials were equally displeased with the verdict and the sentence but they had to act with restraint to avoid giving the impression of trying to influence the affairs of the Bavarian Justice Ministry.

During his short time in prison, Hitler led a pleasant lifestyle for an inmate. Prison authorities allowed him to wear his civilian clothes, to meet with other inmates as he pleased, and to send and receive a voluminous number of letters. Prison authorities also permitted Hitler to utilize the services of his personal secretary, Rudolf Hess, a fellow inmate, also convicted of high treason. While in prison, Hitler dictated to Hess the first volume of his infamous autobiography, Mein Kampf.


The Beer Hall putsch had several ominous legacies. Among those who marched with Hitler to the Odeonsplatz on November 9, 1923, were men who would later hold key positions in Nazi Germany: Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, and Wilhelm Frick. Four out of these five men would stand in the defendants’ dock at the trial of the major war criminals in Nuremberg in 1945; the fifth only escaped that fate by committing suicide.

The aims of the putsch leaders were equally foreboding. They sought to smash internal political opposition and annihilate those who resisted, to establish a dictatorial state with citizenship restricted to Germans of “Nordic” stock, to exclude Jews from political life, and to pass emergency legislation that would allow the “removal of all persons dangerous to security and useless eaters” who would be incarcerated “in concentration camps [Sammellager] and, where possible, turned to labor productive to the community.” When Hitler and the Nazis seized power in 1933, they achieved each of these goals within two years.

Hitler drew important practical lessons from the failed putsch. First, he understood that the Nazi movement could not destroy the Republic by direct assault without support from the Army and police. Second, he understood that success depended upon the Nazi Party as the undisputed leader of the völkisch movement and Hitler as the unequivocal leader of the Nazis. Finally, the experience taught Hitler that an attempt to overthrow the state by force would bring forth a military response in its defense. Henceforth, he was committed to taking advantage of the Weimar democracy to subvert the state from within by seeking to come to power by means of the popular vote and by using the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed by the Weimar Republic to influence that vote.

In the wake of the putsch, the federal and Bavarian government banned the Nazi Party, its formations, and its newspaper. But Hitler’s public commitment to coming to power legally induced the authorities to lift the ban in 1925. A careful organizational restructuring of the Nazi Party under Hitler’s absolute control between 1925-1929, rendered necessary by the dissolution of the Party in 1924, would show its first significant result in the Nazi electoral breakthrough in the Reichstag elections of 1930.

Hitler and the Nazi Party leadership cultivated the memory of the Beer Hall Putsch, giving it a special place in narrative of the Nazi movement, and eventually in that of the German State. After Hitler consolidated power, Nazi Germany celebrated November 9 as Reich Day of Mourning (Reichstrauertag). The Odeonsplatz, the city square where the conspirators had clashed with police, became an important memorial for the Nazi Party. Only after World War II did authorities of the German Federal Republic dedicate a plaque memorializing the four police officers killed on duty in defense of the Weimar Republic.”

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How France sent its greatest chronicler of the Nazi occupation to her death.


The great Jewish writer, Irene Nemirovsky.


By Alex Kershaw

“In life, as on a shipwrecked boat, you have to cut off the hands of anyone who tries to hang on. Alone, you can stay afloat. If you waste time saving other people, you’re finished.”

Irene Nemirovsky, author of Suite Francaise.

On 11 July 1942, 39-year-old Irene Nemirovsky walked alone through beautiful countryside near Issy-l’Eveque, a village in the Bourgogne around two hundred miles south of Paris. Her home was a large building near a former livestock building in the village, just a short walk from the local police station. She had a wonderful view of the Morvan hills. Her husband, Michel, grew beetroot and other vegetables in a large garden nearby and so she and her two daughters had not gone hungry.

The Russian-born writer was a striking woman with large, highly intelligent eyes, her dark hair usually pulled back from her broad forehead. That day, she felt unusually carefree, her sense of dread and doom having abated. She had been forced to write these last months in minute lettering because of a shortage of paper and was near completing what would be her masterpiece, to be titled Suite Francaise. But as a Jewish author she could no longer publish her work and she had little hope, if any, of ever seeing it in print. Nor could she ride a bicycle or take a train to her beloved Paris, which she had fled in 1940 just ahead of the German advance.

She had recently been reading the journal of the writer Katherine Mansfield and had noted certain lines that matched her own mood: “Just when one thinks: “Now I’ve touched the bottom of the sea – now I can’t go down any lower,” one sinks deeper still. And so on for ever.” But she did not feel that way today, 11 July 1942, as she walked in the woods near her home. Pine trees towered above her as she down on her blue cardigan, which she had laid on a dank blanket of rotting leaves. She had a copy of the novel Anna Karenina and an orange in her bag. She listened to a steady drone of honeybees. Later that day, she would pen her last words in a letter to her editor in Paris: “I’ve written a great deal lately. I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”

Two days later, on Monday 13 July, the weather was again superb. It was around 10am when a car stopped in the Place du Monument aux Morts in Issy-l’Eveque. There was the sound of footsteps then a knock on the door. Two French policemen had a summons with them. Irene’s two children were with her and her husband. One was called Denise. She heard her parents go into their bedroom. Irene asked her husband to do all he could to secure her release through contacts with important people in Paris, those with connections to the Germans, especially high profile collaborators. There was a “dense silence”, recalled Denise, and then the gendarmes allowed her to kiss her mother goodbye. Irene threw a few things into a suitcase. Her voice frail, she told her children she had to go away for a while. Denise looked at her father. He was clearly very upset but he did not cry. Finally, Denise heard a car door slam shut and then the “dense silence” returned.

Irene was taken to a police station at Toulon-sur-Arroux, ten miles away. The next day, Irene wrote to her husband: “If you can send me anything, I think my second pair of glasses in the other suitcase (in the wallet). Books, please, and also if possible a bit of salted butter. Goodbye, my love!” Before they could be arrested, Irene’s children, Denise and Elizabeth, were taken to a safe house. They would miraculously survive the war. Meanwhile, Michel contacted anyone who might be able to help him secure Irene’s release. He was convined that some of his contacts, such as Rene de Chambrun and other “influential friends”, would exert pressure and save his wife.

The following evening, 14 July, Paul Epstein, Irene’s brother in law, had a face-to- face meeting with a prominent collaborator, a corporate lawyer called Rene de Chambrun, in Paris. It was Bastille Day but there had been no national celebration. Two days later, Epstein was in turn arrested. Andre Sabatier, Irene’s editor, tried to contact Rene de Chambrun, calling him urgently on the phone several times. It is not known if Rene returned any of the calls.

Paul Epstein was one of thousands caught up in the mass arrests that came to be known as the Grand Rafle, which began on the night of July 16 and lasted well into the following day as 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4000 children, were arrested and around half of them taken to the Vel d’Hiver, a large velodrome beside the Seine. The round up, carried out with great efficiency by the French police, was the only thing people all over the talked about, it seemed, in every food line, office and hospital ward. The screams of Jews committing suicide pierced the terrible quiet in some quartiers. The famous German writer, Ernst Junger, serving in Paris, noted with matter of fact precision in his diary that he had heard “wailing in the streets” as families were literally torn apart, with adults being separated from their young children.

The medical conditions at the Vel D’Hiver, it was soon learned, were utterly atrocious. There were no lavatories. There was only one water tap for over seven thousand people. According to one account: “It was a rafle conducted in keeping with the best of French conditions, for at noon the policemen returned to their posts to have lunch while higher-ranked and better paid set off to nearby restaurants. Only after the sacred dejeuner could the manhunt continue.”

Women’s cries could soon be heard throughout the Vel D’Hiver. “On a soif!”

“We’re thirsty!” they called out.

Only two doctors were allowed inside the Velodrome, equipped with little more than aspirin. After five days, those incarcerated were transferred in cattle trucks to camps at Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande and Drancy, a modernist high-rise development built in the 1930s also known as La Cité de la Muette – the City of Silence.

A young Parisian called Annette Monod watched a batch of young children, who had been separated from their parents, as they were taken by French police from the City of Silence: “The gendarmes tried to have a roll call. But children and names did not correspond. Rosenthal, Biegelmann, Radetski – it all meant nothing to them. They did not understand what was wanted of them, and several even wandered away from the group. That was how a little boy approached a gendarme, to play with the whistle hanging at his belt: a little girl made off to a small bank on which a few flowers were growing, and she picked some to make a bunch. The gendarmes did not know what to do. Then the order came to escort the children to the railway station nearby, without insisting on the roll call.”

On 27 July, Irene Nemirovsky’s husband Michel wrote a letter to German ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz: “I believe you alone can save my wife. I place in you my last hope.” To make sure the letter was delivered to Abetz, Michel sent it to his wife’s editor in Paris, asking him to pass it on to Rene de Chambrun for forwarding to Abetz. The next day, Irene’s editor duly sent the letter to Chambrun who may or may not have passed it on.

Meanwhile, along Avenue Foch and elsewhere, trucks loaded down with furniture and other Jewish possessions could be seen after deported Jews’ homes were ransacked. The looters belonged to the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, actually headquartered on Avenue Foch. Eventually, according to the Nazis, this looting saw 69,619 Jewish homes, 38,000 of which were in Paris, “emptied of everything in daily or ornamental use.”

At the end of July, after over 14,000 Parisian Jews had been rounded up, the Catholic Church in Paris made a belated appeal to Pierre Laval on the children’s behalf. But the Vichy premier was adamant: “They all must go.” And they did. Less than four percent of those sent to the east returned. Not one was a child. Those responsible for this genocide later claimed they had no idea that the deportations were in fact to death camps, not some mythical Jewish haven.

It was a shameful time for France, especially for those who had actively collaborated with the SS and Gestapo. Their new German friends were part of something monstrous – the mass murder of their fellow French citizens. It was impossible to pretend one did not know what was happening. Indeed, those with the best connections to the Nazi regime found themselves begged by relatives and others to do something given their influence. At the height of the deportations, Josee Laval, the wife of Rene de Chambrun, was fully aware of the tragedy. She received two letters asking her to help save Jewish friends of friends. Yet she remained utterly self-involved. On the first day of the round up, she had complained in her diary that her beloved father, Pierre Laval, the head of the Vichy regime, was “too busy” to have dinner with her. She did not mention why.

Her husband was as guilty of inaction as Josee. He had been begged in person to help save Irene Nemirovsky. He had the power to do so given his close connection to German ambassador Otto Abetz who had allowed the Vichy official Fernand de Brinon’s Jewish wife to avoid deportation in 1941. Indeed, with the right connections, it was possible to buy or trade anyone’s release. And he knew it. Rene also counted the smooth-talking Rene Bousquet, head of the French police, as an old friend, having belonged to the same rugby team in his youth. Yet there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Rene took take up Nemirovsky’s case with either Abetz or Bousquet.

It was later learned that Nemirovsky, listed as “a woman of letters”, was deported from France on 16 July 1942 along with 119 other women. Her train had left promptly at 6.15am and arrived on 19 July at Auschwitz. Aged just 39, the author or the finest novel of the German occupation, Suite Francaise, breathed her last after just four weeks at the death camp. Two months later, the US government offered to provide refuge to a thousand Jewish children whose parents had, like Nemirovsky, been deported. Pierre Laval insisted that only “certified orphans” could leave for the US. Since nothing was officially known of the fate of the deported parents, the children were not allowed to go to the US. Most would die in the gas chambers. Nemirovsky’s husband, Michel Epstein, fared no better. He was arrested on 9 October 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. As with 77,000 other Jews in France, he would never return.

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By Alex Kershaw

I didn’t try to choke back a sob when I learnt that Bob Sales had passed away on 23 February, aged 89. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years with some truly amazing veterans, but none whose company I enjoyed more than Bob’s – he was a very funny man, or at least I thought so. This was all the more remarkable given that he didn’t have a lot to laugh at – at least not in WWII.

Sales landed on the bloodiest sands for any American of the 20th Century, perhaps in all history – Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, around 7am on June 6 1944. A proud Virginian, he belonged to Company B of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, having joined the National Guard aged 15 by lying about his age. Three years later, aged eighteen, he was the only man from his landing craft to survive the worst carnage on D Day. In fact he was my main and most reliable eyewitness as to what happened to the Bedford boys who had landed just minutes before him and had been quickly slaughtered, whose bodies he saw as he tried to get across the deadliest sector of any beach in Normandy at the deadliest possible time, indeed as German machine-gunners killed any man who so much as twitched as the wounded lay frozen, the tide lapping at their heels. Death surrounded him, goaded him, haunted him, for another six months in France as he killed and watched so many more young men die before he too, inevitably, became a victim.

Sales was a good-looking son-of-a-gun, as he might have put it, a horny teenage “Yank” on a last weekend pass in London before the invasion. In his home in Lynchburg in 2002, in view of the memorial to his fallen comrades he had built in his backyard, he answered me honestly when I asked him what was the moment he felt proudest to be an American in WWII. It was when he heard Tommy Dorsey and his band start up, at the Covent Garden Opera House, some dreary day that spring of 1944. He loved the jaunty tempo, the heady upswing, the feeling he had when he stood up and moved toward the packed dance-floor in his crisp uniform, wearing polished leather shoes and a tie – those English gals thought he looked like a mighty fine officer, a gentleman, not a lowly private, just as it should be for a charming southern boy with a cheeky glint in his eye, whose unit traced back to the Stonewall Jackson brigade, legends of the Civil War.

He loved England, my place of birth, all his long life. He wrote to friends there for decades, kept in touch with a people who’d dubbed his division “England’s Own” because it was based there for so long – from late 1942 to June 6 1944. He had risked his life beside Brits – he never, ever forgot to mention the heroism of the British naval crews who took him and his buddies onto Omaha. It enraged Sales when false stories appeared, spread by Americans of all people, about his commanding officer having to put a gun to a Tommy’s head to make him land Company B on time and in the right place.

Sales loved to dance, especially with English girls. “Churchill had Covent Garden opera house converted in to the biggest dance hall you ever saw in your life,” he told me, a big smile on his face, a wry lilt to his Virginia drawl. “They had two bands there. One would play for a while then the stage would rotate and another would start up. If you were dancing with a girl you didn’t like, you waltzed over to the stag line and got another. Wrens, Wacs, always two hundred standing waiting to dance. They loved to dance, those English girls. Man, it was as close to heaven as you could get.”

If Bob and his buddies didn’t get lucky in Covent Garden, there were plenty of “Piccadilly commandos.” He didn’t miss a beat as he reminisced, my tape recorder flashing red, capturing his every word: “Half a pound, occasionally a pound if she was real good looking. It was just unreal when it came to that…There was also a Red Cross hostel where you’d spend the night for nothing. A bunch of girls from Spain worked as maids there. They’d sing, carry on, and laugh as they made our beds. When you were screwing one of them, the others would sing so the supervisor wouldn’t catch on. It was the darndest thing you ever seen. Then you’d slip them two shillings.”

That little confession came back to haunt both of us. It was May 2003, at a Walmart in Lynchburg, where my book the Bedford Boys was being launched. I was stunned to see well over two hundred people turn up for a signing. Suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a portly man in a wheelchair was at my side.

“God damn, Kershaw, you put it all in the book! I mean all of it, man!”

For a moment, I was worried he might slug me, teach a cocky limey a thing or two. But then I saw the big smile on his face and heard the chuckle and the laugh. Thinking back to that humid day in a Walmart on Memorial Day I now have tears, as I write, in my eyes. I realize now I loved Bob for his honesty and wit and because he made the war real and romantic and terrible to me, born twenty years after he finally came home.

He survived the very worst. As a radio operator, he was beside his commanding officer just before 7am on June 6th. Captain Ettore Zappacosta, Company B’s commanding officer told Sales to “crawl up on the edge and see what you can see.” The beach was a stone’s throw away but Sales couldn’t see anybody from Company A fighting – the Bedford boys belonged to Company A and had landed at H Hour, 6.32am. Of the 19 men from Bedford County, Virginia, who died that day, most were already dead, their corpses strewn across the beach ahead of Sales.

“Captain,” shouted Sales, “there’s something wrong. There’s men laying everywhere on the beach!”
“They shouldn’t be on the beach.”

A British bowman said he was going to drop the ramp. Sales ducked down. Zappacosta was the first out. MG-42 bullets riddled him immediately.

“I’m hit, I’m hit,” he called out.

Every man who followed met the same fate, caught in a relentless crossfire.

Sales would have been hit too but he stumbled as he exited, lost his balance, and fell into the water off the side of the ramp. He was still wearing his radio. He struggled in the water to release it; if he didn’t get the damned thing off his back, he knew he would never fill his lungs with air again. Sales finally ripped the pack free and surfaced. He was several yards in front of the craft. The machine guns were now enjoying open season. Men were still exiting, still dropping the instant they appeared on the ramp.

“Those German machine guns,” Sales told me, “they just ate us up.”

A mortar exploded, stunning Sales. Some time later, feeling “very groggy”, he grabbed onto a log that had been part of a beach defense. A live mine was still attached to one end. Sales used the log as cover, pushing it in front of him, his face pressed to the wood. Finally, he got to the beach, where he spotted his boat’s communications sergeant, Dick Wright, who had jumped off after Zappacosta. He was badly wounded and had been washed ashore. When he saw Sales he managed to raise himself up on his elbows to tell him something but before he could utter a word a sniper hiding in rocks along the bluff shot him.

“It looked like his head exploded,” Sales recalled. “Pieces just fell about in the sand. And I lay there, just figuring I’d be next. I said to myself: “That sniper done and seen me, too.” And evidently something distracted him, another boat maybe, a bigger target, because he didn’t get me. I buried my head in the sand as far as I could, put my arms over my head, and I just waited. I reckon I lay there thirty minutes.”

“I’d seen a wall, maybe 150 feet away. I thought: “If I can get to that wall, I got a little protection. So maybe I can get another gun or some thing.” I had fifty yards to go – a long way especially when you’re expecting a man to kill you. So I started using dead bodies. I would crawl to one and then real easy I’d move to another. That was the only protection.”

Sales inched forward. The corpses of Bedford boys and others dotted the beach, every ten yards or so. Some faces were familiar. They’d smiled at him across bars. They’d passed him on cold parade grounds. “I never seen a living soul from Company A that day,” Bob told me. “But I saw their bodies. I don’t remember the names. I was so scared to death. But there were quite a few of them. It was definitely A Company I crawled around – there was nobody else that could have been dead that quick.”

Sales saw another Company B man, Private Mack Smith, by a cluster of rocks – at the base of the wall. Sales crawled over. He’d made it. Smith had been hit three times in the face. An eyeball lay on his cheek. Sales gave him a “morphine jab”, popped the eye back into the socket, and then bandaged him.

“Them’s failed, man,” said Smith. “We gotta get off this beach. They gotta send boats in for us.”

The pair stayed at the sea wall, both in shock, for what felt like an eternity. Sales would be taken off the beach that afternoon but would return before nightfall after persuading a doctor to allow him to rejoin a launch going back for wounded on Omaha. ‘There wasn’t a man off my boat who lived, except me. Not one.”

Sales fought on through Normandy. “D-Day was the longest day, there’s no doubt about that,” he told me, “but for those who survived it was just one day. I had a hundred and eighty to go. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many men right beside me got killed. The average infantryman survived a week, if he was lucky.”

Sales told me every day was worse than the last, a gradual degradation of the mind, body and spirit. “You never got used to combat. Every damn morning, you got up wondering if you were going to live through the day.”

That last day took a long time coming. At 4am on 18 November 1944, Sales was ordered to take up position on the other side of a field before dawn. As he crossed the field, “the Germans lit it up with flares like you could play football on it and then opened up on us with tracer fire from a machine gun. When dawn came, I crawled back and then took a tank along a road. We got a German gun. I tapped the tank and hollered: “Okay! Let’s get out of here.” The tank turned and then they hit us with an antitank rocket. There were balls of fire rolling out of my eyes. I couldn’t find my gun, nothing. I was hit in both eyes with shrapnel, blood was pouring out of my head from a cut, where my head hit the side of the tank. That finished me. I stayed in hospital a year and a half, lost an eye. The other one is not the best in the world but a hell of a lot better than nothing.”

Sales’ actions on 18 November earned him a Silver Star. Like so very many, he deserved far, far more. After the war, he became a successful businessman, working as a land developer and pulp wood dealer. He retired as the proud owner of his own company: the Sales and White Timber Company. In 2014, he was one of six World War II veterans who were afforded the great honor of being made a knight of the Legion of Honor. To the day he died, he flew the Stars and Stripes at his home, was intensely proud of his fellow Virginians from the 116th Infantry regiment and indeed all of the 29ers who sacrificed so very much on D Day. 375 men from his regiment were lost on bloody Omaha. He had listed all the names of his buddies who died on D Day on the memorial he erected in his own backyard.

Sales never felt prouder to be a “Yank” than that day in London April 1944 when he heard the siren call of a big band, perhaps the greatest of all time, and saw the English gals look his way.

And what about his proudest moment in combat, I had once asked him. What did he remember with greatest pride from his six months of fighting to liberate Europe?

“I never killed a prisoner,” he told me, deadly serious for once, “and I never sent one back when I thought a man would kill him.”

Thus spoke my greatest hero….. Goodbye Bob. I know you will rest in peace. None have deserved it more.

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Foreword to the Mammoth Book of War Correspondents

By Alex Kershaw

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Honest war reporters have never had it easy. From the earliest days of their trade to the present, cheerleaders rather than skeptics have been the most successful. The London Times’ William Howard Russell, who covered the Crimea War to great acclaim, would discover just five years later how picking the wrong side could backfire when his predictions of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War scandalized his readers and led to his resignation. He was not, as he claimed, the “first and greatest” of war correspondents but he was indeed one of the “miserable” parents of a “luckless tribe” that has dared to ask the wrong questions of the odds-on-favorites and paid for their insolence ever since, often with their lives.

The Civil War was perhaps the first war whose horror was revealed in heart-rending detail by at least some correspondents, for what could be glorious about a fratricide in which more Americans died than in WWII? Samuel Wilkeson of The New York Times, for example, reported on the slaughter at Gettysburg with great power and poignancy, delivering his dispatch having just learned that his own son had died.

It was the first great celebrity reporter, Richard Harding Davis, working for William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow press”, who delivered perhaps the most impactful newspaper report in history, in the run up to the Spanish-American War in 1898. “The Death of Rodriguez”, the story of the public execution of a rebel, whom Davis watched die, “the blood from his breast sinking into the soil he had tried to free,” changed public opinion in America like no other report before or since. Desperate to increase circulation, Hearst was delighted with Davis’s breathless propaganda. Davis was not a flat-out liar, however, and lesser figures had to be employed to guarantee Hearst the circulation-boosting conflict he so desired.

Davis was again in the thick of the action during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the first time a Western power was humiliated by an Asian nation. The Japanese were so strict in their censorship that Davis’ celebrity grew not through his derring-do on the battlefield but because he managed to save Jack London, a fellow correspondent and world famous author of The Call of the Wild, from incarceration. London had struck a Japanese in frustration, having stewed with the rest of the press corps in Tokyo, barred from the front.

“The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.” So declared American Senator Hiram Johnson at the height of the first great bloodbath of the last century: a war to end all wars in which the best and brightest in Europe were mowed down in Flanders for four long years. Throughout the First World War, censorship was even stricter than that suffered by Jack London at the hands of the Japanese. Even jingoists like Rudyard Kipling – “There are human beings and Germans” – confronted a military whose leaders feared and therefore despised war correspondence.

Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was chief among the detractors, describing the press as “drunken swabs”. Rare was the sober report throughout the war, even when young men were falling in the tens of thousands each week on the Somme and at Verdun for just a few yards of barbed wire and mud. It is doubtful that America’s entry into the conflict, shamefully managed throughout with horrendous and callous loss of life, would have occurred had it not been for the hysterical reporting of much of the American press.

The truth of war was still hard to find between the two world wars, whether in Russia or Spain, where ideologies violently divided nations. As Europe teetered on the brink yet again, George Orwell wrote from the Spanish Civil War, trying to warn of the horrors of fascism. Yet he left the conflict disillusioned by all sides, disgusted by the bias of left and right: “I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”

The Second World War was, by contrast, perhaps a golden age of frontline prose, starring such humanistic scribblers as Ernie Pyle whose sparse and heart-felt reports on ordinary GIs were adored by his subjects and readers alike. To this day, historians of that conflict – a “crazy hysterical mess” as John Steinbeck called it – swoon over Pyle’s elegiac account of the death of a captain called Waskow in Italy. Unlike Hemingway’s self-regarding reports, Pyle’s beautifully-crafted story of young men mourning their young leader still evokes the immense sadness of a war in which Pyle saw many “swell kids having their heads blown off”.

Pyle was in fact so nauseated by what he had seen that he eventually “lost track of the whole point of the war.” But it did have a point. Although it entailed the death in Europe of over 130,000 mostly working class Americans, with a final butcher’s bill of over fifty million lives around the globe, the fighting in WWII was without doubt necessary if barbarism was to be defeated. The concentration camps visited by Richard Dimbleby and others in 1945 were all the evidence one needed of why the sacrifice was so important, if no less palatable. Tragically, Pyle was one of 53 US-accredited reporters to lose their lives covering the war, killed only days from the end by a Japanese sniper in the Pacific.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, reporting restrictions continued but a more critical tone began to emerge in the press as a whole. It was also marked by the extraordinary bravery of Marguerite Higgins, ambitious, blonde, the first woman to enter Dachau in 1945, and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting thanks to her work in Korea. She did not plan to marry, she quipped, until she found a man who was as exciting as war. For all her bravado, however, she had to fight sexist generals as much as she did the elements and censorship in order to get her stories from the battlefront.

The impact of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in 1961, which has since embroiled America in seemingly endless combat around the globe, has imbued war reporting since Korea with a far darker, nihilistic tinge. As the next major war dragged on in Vietnam, for more and more reporters so much of what they were witnessing no longer had any moral foundation. The sacrifice was seemingly in vain, as was the gross expenditure and the destruction.

At the height of the Vietnam War, half of Americans had no idea what the war was about. Today, far more still don’t. What would become “the longest running front-page story in history”, wreaking untold environmental damage and killing at least half a million Vietnamese civilians, began in earnest in 1962 and lasted more than a decade. For year after year, the war escalated with hundreds of reporters noting the daily body counts. Only when Walter Cronkite raised doubts from a US television studio in 1968, thousands of miles from Saigon and Khe Sanh, did many Americans first begin to wonder if all the blood and sacrifice was worth it.

The war couldn’t last long enough for some of those actually covering it. To many of the male correspondents, noted the perceptive Nora Ephron, “the war is not hell. It is fun.” Perhaps the most skilled of the stalwarts was New Zealander Peter Arnett, who spent more time covering the war than any other reporter. “As hard-boiled as a Chinese thousand-year-old egg,” according to another astute female observer, Marina Warner, Arnett was notable for his emotional detachment, at least in his reporting. Many others were far less objective, providing visceral, unforgettable images of the Green Machine sinking further into the South East Asian quagmire of hubris and bullshit that led to the US’s humiliating withdrawal in 1975. Amid all the madness and hallucinatory scenes, young writers such as Michael Herr managed to transcend the confines and clichés of deadline reporting, producing prose of lasting eloquence about young Americans performing for nightly news broadcasts, “doing little guts and glory Leatherneck dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks.”
The Vietnam War was, on reflection, arguably covered better than any in history, certainly by more journalists from more countries for longer than any other conflict. “But that is not saying a lot,” the Australian journalist Phillip Knightley has observed in his classic book, The First Casualty, an eviscerating examination of the war correspondent as “hero and myth maker”. “With a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year.”
Barely a generation later, determined not to allow the press to lose them another war, the politicians who planned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made sure things would be done right. They had their usual way with the eager to please military, which proudly introduced to primetime audiences “Shock and Awe”’s most potent weapon, far more effective than a SCUD missile – the “embedded reporter”. Every hack knew the only option was to get in bed with the military’s public relations corps in the hope of a ride with a bunch of grunts. The resulting exclusives usually entailed sweating in a flack jacket in a Bradley fighting vehicle while dodging IEDs. Other than the reporters’ egos, little was revealed. The fog of war got only thicker the closer most got to the grunts they were covering.

August sections of the media had built the case for the war in Iraq. Short and victorious conflicts are always great for circulation and ratings. It was expected to be both. And indeed much of the coverage in the first heady weeks after invasion was predictably gung-ho, the kind of “yellow journalism” that would have made Hearst proud. The Lebanese-American reporter Anthony Shadid was one exception. His March 2003 report on the burial of Iraqi civilians – the first collateral damage of the war – raised questions that few cared to answer back in Washington where post 9-11 hysteria had been shamelessly whipped up to aggrandize men who had ducked out of service in Vietnam: “If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?”

Ten years later, Shadid is sadly no longer with us, dead on assignment covering Assad’s atrocities in Syria. But the question civilians ask – how they, not the men in uniform, do most of the dying – is still a familiar lament as drones, not Hueys or B-52s, strike suspected militants, terrorists as well as innocents, on an almost daily basis. Indeed, there is no end in sight to the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan despite a decade of countless reporters’ questions.

It is not the reporters’ fault that so few lessons have been learnt from so many conflicts. The fact is we are a destructive species. To pretend otherwise is to be ignorant of history or in denial. War gives men meaning. It is addictive – to combatants, megalomaniacs and journalists, male and female as the reporting in recent years of Janine di Giovianni and Christina Lamb, to name but two gutsy women, has shown.

Any writer worth their salt will tell you little comes close to the adrenaline high of bullets cracking over one’s head as you fumble for a notebook. As many of the brave reporters included in this anthology would attest, there’s nothing quite as effective as a stiff shot of combat when it comes to sharpening your prose. Thankfully, at least every war produces its fair share of great writing, even when censorship is at its most stringent and suffocating.

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The Tang was soon moving away at full speed, around 23 knots, partially hidden by a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Other captains might now have plotted a new course and not looked back. Not Dick O’Kane. At 10,000 yards from the convoy, he slowed the Tang. He was going back for more—to finish off the transport he’d seen dead in the water.
O’Kane ordered his torpedo mechanics to pull the last two torpedoes from their tubes and examine them. With so few left, he wanted to make sure there would be no mistakes. Pete Narowanski, Hayes Trukke, and the other torpedo mechanics carefully checked the Tang ’s last two fish. They then loaded them into forward tubes numbered five and six.
Thirty minutes later, Tang was ready to deliver the coup de grâce to the stricken transport…. The Tang moved forward at six knots, her bow pointing at the transport. There were no escorts in sight.
Floyd Caverly looked at the screen of his SJ radar in the conning tower.
“Range: fifteen hundred yards,” said Caverly.
The submarine crept slowly closer.
Nine hundred yards from the target, O’Kane was ready with his remaining two torpedoes—for all he knew, they were the last he might fire in combat during the war.
“Stand by below,” O’Kane ordered.
“Ready below, captain,” replied Springer.
A small jolt was felt throughout the boat as the next-to-last torpedo was fired….
Now just one torpedo was left. Once it had been fired, the Tang could head back to safety, having completed one of the most destructive patrols of the war.
O’Kane called for a time check. It was 2:30 A.M. on October 25, 1944.
In the conning tower, [Lieutenant] Larry Savadkin operated the torpedo data computer. He pressed a button which set the final firing angle of Tang ’s last torpedo.
“Fire!” ordered O’Kane.
Frank Springer stood a few feet from Savadkin in the conning tower. He pressed the firing plunger. Again, a jolting whoosh as the last torpedo, Number 24, left the Tang. The submarine shuddered as compressed air forced the torpedo from its tube and seawater flooded back into the tube.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski slammed his fist into the palm of his left hand.
“Hot dog, course zero nine zero,” he cried. “Heading for the Golden Gate!”
“Let’s head for the barn,” someone else shouted.
There was a massive explosion as Number 23 torpedo hit its target, sending flames and debris shooting into the sky….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.
“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.
The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.
“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.
Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.
“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.
“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”
“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”
In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.
The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.
“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.
Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….
In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.
Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get the hell out of here? Surely?
Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.
But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.
Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.
In the conning tower, there was chaos.
“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski found himself flat on his back from the huge explosion. He picked himself up. What happened? There had been no alarm. One moment he had been rejoicing, looking forward to carousing in San Francisco. Now he could feel the Tang sinking. Had the Tang been hit by a Japanese shell?
…[Narowanski] and the other men in the forward torpedo room remained calm. They were well trained and had many years’ experience between them. As they tried to figure out what exactly had happened to the Tang, they scanned the compartment for damage. There was surprisingly little. Then, their training kicked in. They closed the watertight door leading to the next compartment. One of the men, who was still wearing headphones, tried to contact other compartments but without success. Someone else turned on the emergency lights.
[They] were lucky. Unlike men trapped in other compartments, the torpedomen knew they had a way out from theirs—they were a few feet from one of only two escape trunks on the Tang. The other was in the after torpedo room, which was flooded, its occupants either killed instantly by the explosion or now drowned….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold saw a cloud of what looked like black smoke. In fact it was water thrown up from the explosion. He and other men on the bridge felt the boat being wrenched, as if it were being split in half.
A few feet from Leibold, Dick O’Kane watched, aghast, as the tops of the after ballast tanks blew into the air. Water washed across the wooden main decking, around the five-inch main gun, and then toward the aft cigarette deck where Tang’s 40mm gun was positioned, several feet from where O’Kane now stood on the bridge.
“Do we have propulsion?” he then asked, speaking into his bridge phone.
There was no answer.
O’Kane again shouted into the bridge phone.
The men in the conning tower below could hear him. But O’Kane received no reply. The explosion had knocked out the microphone on his bridge phone.
“Radar!” shouted O’Kane. “I want to know how far it is to the closest destroyer and what the course is on that destroyer.”
Caverly picked up his microphone in the conning tower.
“The radar is out of commission,” said Caverly. “I have no bearing or range right now.”
“Radar,” barked O’Kane, “I’m asking for information and I want it now!”
Caverly realized that O’Kane’s microphone was out of action so he stepped over to the hatch and called up: “The radar is out of commission.”
Caverly then gave the Tang ’s last bearing and range, but O’Kane did not hear him. He had stepped away from the hatch.
“I want information, radar!” O’Kane shouted again, desperately.
Frank Springer grabbed Caverly by the nape of the neck and seat of his pants and began to shove him up the hatch.
“Get up there and talk to the skipper!” said Springer.
Caverly climbed up the ladder to the bridge [and]…stepped over toward O’Kane, who was a few feet from Bill Leibold…. Water started to rise up toward the bridge. It had soon covered the aft third of the submarine.
“Close the hatch!” cried O’Kane.
But it was too late. The Tang began to sink, tons of water pouring into the conning tower. The after section of the submarine had flooded….
Caverly knew it was now time for every man to look after himself.

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